“This is a bad idea,” Nathan Brown, a character in the TV series Upload proclaims. “The ads make it seem like a really great thing, but it is f-cking…monstrous.” The bad idea in this case involves uploading the consciousness of deceased people into a virtual reality afterlife and, as it turns out, most purveyors of popular culture agree with him: virtual reality is almost unvaryingly presented negatively in modern entertainment, from its use as a sedative (or, when necessary, weapon) in The Matrix films to its use as an entertaining distraction in the Ready Player One novel and film—virtual reality is typically portrayed as a malignant force from which heroes lead victims in escaping.
At the same time, advocates for virtual reality (henceforth VR) claim it will improve education, science, medicine and business. Mark Zuckerberg even says his virtual world, the Metaverse, is “what we mean by an embodied internet. Instead of looking at a screen, you’re going to be in these experiences. Everything we do online today, connecting socially, entertainment, games, work, is going to be more natural and vivid” (“The Metaverse”).
These are lofty claims: a virtual experience that is more natural and vivid than real life? How can the Internet be embodied? Is it possible to really be inside digital experiences? While Zuckerberg can be accused of hyperbole—and I do just that below—process thought gives us a framework for understanding precisely how VR is real, and how its processual nature has a direct effect on our continual becoming.
What is VR, and is it Real?
The technical definition of VR is surprisingly simple: it is a computer-generated three-dimensional environment in which a user can explore and—most importantly—with which she can interact (“What is Virtual Reality?”). The key difference between VR and other computer-generated media like standard video games is that the former is immersive: VR generates a perceptual experience of existing within the computer-generated environment; this experience is enhanced through interactivity wherein the user’s actions significantly impact the virtual environment (Chalmers 312–13). The dependence of VR on technology—not only computers to generate the virtual environment, but also headsets and gloves to facilitate immersion and interactivity—leads Johnny Hartz Søraker to say, “Virtual worlds are both worlds and technologies, the computer simulation is both the underpinning of the virtual world and the means of mediation, entities within virtual worlds can be regarded as technologies themselves, and although virtual worlds mediate the physical world and other human beings, they also construct reality” (Søraker 504).
This concept of constructing reality gives rise to an important question: in what sense is VR real? From a purely materialist standpoint, VR can be said to be real because the code constructing its existence is a product of human activity, and the bits of data in which it is encoded exist within charges in transistors and solid-state memory as well as magnetized sectors on a hard drive. This, however, is not what people usually mean when they ask about VR’s reality. They are instead asking whether experiences within a virtual environment are equivalent to experiences in the physical world.
David Chalmers, perhaps the philosopher most active in arguing for the reality (as opposed to the fictionality or illusion) of virtual environments, responds, “A common way of thinking about virtual realities is that they’re somehow fake realities, that what you perceive in VR isn’t real. I think that’s wrong…The virtual worlds we’re interacting with can be as real as our ordinary physical world. Virtual reality is genuine reality” (Sample). In explaining his position of “virtual digitalism,” Chalmers claims the most compelling evidence for the reality of virtual environments is that the digital objects within them have causal powers: digital objects have the ability to affect other digital objects—and, more importantly, the perceptual experience of users operating within the virtual environment—and within this environment only digital objects have such causal power (Chalmers 317–18). In his best known example, he argues from organizational invariance when comparing a virtual calculator with a physical calculator: the virtual calculator performs calculations as does a physical one, meaning the virtual calculator is therefore a real calculator (325).
Chalmers’ observation about perceptual experience points us in a direction in which process thought can reflect meaningfully on the reality of VR. Mark Dibben and Niki Panteli believe VR can be understood as potential…focussing on the actual entity/occasion in concrescence as the ‘transformation’ of the potential (‘virtual reality’) into the actual (‘real reality’)…Virtual reality may be properly called ‘real potentiality’, structured (organised) in such a way as to specifically inform the concrescence of a particular entity” (Dibben and Panteli 9, 10).
According to Dibben and Panteli’s system, the unfiltered Internet or cyberspace is the “general” potentiality of seemingly infinite possibilities providing the data comprising the specific VR environment in which a user engages (this data is therefore organized according to the user’s aim) (Dibben and Panteli 9, 10). Timothy Barker elaborates on this using the Deleuzian concept of abstract machines: the digital image (and environment) “is an unstable stream of code, never attaining an eternal material existence without the constant flux of information and the actualisation of potential over time” through the processing of the machine (Barker, “Toward a Process Philosophy,” 2).
I find this process perspective on VR immensely more fulfilling than simply focusing upon organizational variance and causality (while readily acknowledging that perspectives such as Chalmers’ “virtual digitalism” are useful if one is to successfully develop the functional mechanics of a virtual environment). As Barker notes, digital encounters are entirely processual, with everything appearing in the virtual environment ceaselessly changing through the complex interrelationship between the user(s) and hardware (Barker, “Process and (Mixed) Reality,” 17).
This perspective is enhanced when we avoid restricting our understanding of VR to its being exclusively a real potential; instead, VR is best understood as a nexus of actual entities through which real potentials are prehended. Thus, as Barker states, the user(s) and hardware prehend one another (18): the user prehends her experience as she navigates the virtual environment; the hardware then prehends both her physical movements as she moves her hands and bobs her head as well as the physical changes made to process and store this information and then, using the potentialities offered by the software according to its “if/then” programming, continually adjusts the virtual environment in response. “This is an example of the concrescence of material and digital occasions in the one event of interaction,” he concludes, “a temporal transaction whereby the machinic system and the human system work through one another” (22).
VR is therefore quintessentially interrelational, leading to some of the benefits of VR discussed below.
Processual Benefits of VR
The primary benefit of VR is its potential contributions to novelty. As Michael Heim puts it, “The final point of a virtual world is to dissolve the constraints of the anchored world so we can lift anchor…and explore anchorages in ever new places” (quoted in Coyne 65). VR is already increasingly used in simulated training scenarios and education (even at a nearby small regional university a college biology course dissects virtual frogs), but the possibilities for VR extend far beyond this.
For example, VR provides enhanced opportunities for interrelationships between individuals and institutions on a transglobal (and, in the future when humans settle on distant stations and planets, multi-planetary) scale. This would involve moving beyond static ideas of individual and corporate boundaries, Robert Chia argues, and instead participating in an organizing process that is “a complex and dynamic web of interlocking visual acts of arresting, punctuating, isolating and classifying of the essentially undivided flow of human experiences for the purpose of rendering more controllable and manipulable such phenomenal experiences of the world” (quoted in Dibben and Panteli 6). Organizing within a virtual environment would therefore facilitate deep social interactions whose (to use Søraker’s terms) intravirtual effects could carry out into the extravirtual world (Marchese).
An example of how this might work is the practice of “design fiction,” in which designers (both of products and processes) create a narrative in which a product would be used or a process engaged in the near future, and then imagine the steps needed beginning today to reach the point where such a product or process is viable. The point of the activity, says novelist Bruce Sterling, is that “people need a motivating vision of what comes next and the awareness that more will happen after that...the future is a process not a destination. The future is a verb not a noun” (quoted in “Design Fiction”) In one case of design fiction at work, a worldwide team is currently using VR as its medium for design fiction to develop sustainable alternatives for fossil resources (Quinn). In a more forward-facing example, Microsoft places prototypes of its future technologies in movies to make consumers more accepting when the company’s related products eventually reach the market (Graham).
VR is also proving to be highly effective in medicine, both for providing a meditative environment to assist with pain management (“New Study”) and for treating mental and behavioral health disorders (Gani). VR is particularly effective at persuading patients to engage (and, most importantly, to continue) with their medical treatments, a result Aaron Gani attributes to the interrelational possibilities of the virtual environment (Ibid). From a process perspective, we could say the VR-enabled treatment is more effective because it is more enjoyable, thereby enhancing the subjective intensity (see the discussion of enjoyment and entertainment in Jackson 230).
Even the limitations of VR can provide opportunities for novelty. I bristled at Mark Zuckerberg’s claim that his Metaverse “is going to be more natural and vivid” than the physical world. Regarding just one of many points of surreality in the Metaverse, many pundits have criticized the blocky graphics of the virtual environment, as well as the unnatural appearance and movements of avatars who, two years after the VR system’s launch, still do not have visible legs (Tassi). At the same time, if we are willing to put aside these writers’ data-oriented and correspondence views of perception (Coyne 66), the technical limitations of current VR technology can in a unique way assist us in consciously experiencing continual becoming. Slow computer processing or limited Internet bandwidth can cause a lag between a user’s physical movement and her virtual avatar, or even delays in constructing the virtual environment itself; these delays can serve as an experiential reminder that we ourselves, as well as the world around us, are all continually “under construction.” Of course, less philosophically or mystically-minded individuals would retort that I’m simply putting lipstick on a technologically-limited pig, and their perspective would not be entirely invalid.
Dangers of VR
While I see the current technical limitations of VR as being potentially valuable as a lure for meditation on continual becoming, they are—in addition to simply being irritating—even more problematic because they reduce the general potentiality of VR. The Metaverse’s half-people taking selfies in front of a dislocated, Lego-like Eiffel Tower is an excruciatingly limited form of novelty. VR offers legitimate opportunities for collaboration and learning, but current technology does not create a one-to-one virtual parallel to the physical world; airplane pilots practice emergency situations in a virtual flight simulator, but their primary practice and testing still involves flying physical airplanes in the extravirtual world.
The problem of general technical limitations is compounded by limitations of access, and the aims of the people/organizations limiting that access (Dibben and Panteli acknowledge that organizations—including, as some researchers observe, groups using VR—are generally bounded by physical and legal structures (5), but they choose instead to focus on the flexibility of self-created boundaries of virtual groups to functionally organize themselves (11)). The transglobal (not to mention future inter-planetary) virtual environment envisioned above would require relatively open access to the system, but current virtual environments are largely self-contained and operated for the benefit of the supporting corporation or institution. Information and digital objects are thus frequently trapped inside the siloed VR systems with no way to move them between systems. Harry McCracken gives a particularly ludicrous—but real—example of the effect, “During a pop-up experience in May 2021, for example, someone plunked down $4,115 in Roblox’s ‘Robux’ currency for a virtual Gucci Dionysius bag—and in Roblox that bag will stay” (McCracken 85).
This lock-in to providers of siloed virtual environments becomes even more serious when we consider the aims of the people/organizations operating these environments. The disinformation problems of non-VR social media outlets Facebook (a subsidiary of Meta, creator of the Metaverse) and Twitter demonstrate both how corporations will misuse user data and manipulate users (or allow them to be manipulated) for the corporations’ profit. Even excluding the standard corporate drive for profits, the sheer expense of operating VR systems will necessitate monetizing many (if not most of) these systems, resulting in even more severe privacy concerns than we currently face (since the software in which the virtual environment is encoded can also be written to provoke, direct and track specific physical movements and responses from users as well as continuing to monitor the current metric of engagement with textual and audiovisual content).
A third problem for VR can be seen as related to the Fallacy of Misplaced Concreteness. Heavy users of VR have been reported to suffer from a depersonalization and derealization syndrome, manifested in a person feeling detached from her own body and the world around her; derealization appears to be particularly triggered by heavy use of gloves and controllers which generate digital hand movements in the VR (Găină et al. 364, 368). This problem becomes global in scale with Chalmers’ expectation that at some point in the future a sizable percentage of humanity will choose to live full-time (or as close as possible with a minimum of extravirtual time to care for bodily needs) in VR, either because of nuclear or climate catastrophe, social unrest, or simply a preference for the comfort and ease of digital life (Sample). Even Chalmers admits this would be disastrous; abandoning our physical world to decay for a preferred virtual existence, with the added ontological schizophrenia of dedicating one’s consciousness to a virtual world while nonetheless being bodily enmeshed in the neglected physical world, is a particularly egregious disregard for The Earth Charter’s call to “live with respect and care for the community of life” (“The Earth Charter”).
These problems are serious and demand serious attention: Găină, et al, call for medical professionals to monitor dissociative symptoms and, if needed, create and implement a dissociative disorder scale (Găină et al. 369); McCracken likewise calls for an agreed-upon and supported set of standards (such as those being developed by the Metaverse Standards Forum) enabling interoperability and free information flow, as well as support for alternative VR systems outside those operated by such corporations as Meta and Google (McCracken 86).
Despite these dangers, the benefits of VR—the interrelationality and novelty of the experience—make such systems immensely valuable. The non-immersive Internet, with all of its problems, has nonetheless provided innumerable benefits (such as this course being widely available at a reasonable cost). VR, with its potential to channel general potentiality into real potentiality that can be prehended and enrich actual occasions, provides man possibilities to offer even more benefits.
The key, as Jaron Lanier says, is that VR “should be enjoyed as one of life's treats, but not as an alternative to life” (quoted in Ramos).
Barker, Timothy. “Process and (Mixed) Reality: A Process Philosophy for Interaction in Mixed Reality Environments.” IEEE International Symposium on Mixed and Augmented Reality 2009; Arts, Media and Humanities Proceedings, Orlando, 19–22 October, 2009. 17–23.
Barker, Timothy. “Toward a Process Philosophy for Digital Aesthetics.” Proceedings of the In-ternational Symposium on Electronic Arts 09 (ISEA09), Belfast, 23rd August – 1st Septem-ber 2009.
Chalmers, David J. “The Virtual and the Real.” Disputatio, vol. 9, no. 46, 2017, pp. 309-52.
Coyne, Richard. “Heidegger and Virtual Reality: The Implications of Heidegger’s Thinking for Computer Representations.” Leonardo, vol. 27, no. 1, 1994, pp. 65-73.
“Design Fiction.” https://www.julianbleecker.com/designfiction. Accessed October 7 2022.
Dibben, Mark and Niki Panteli. “A Journey Towards the Processual Understanding of Virtual Organisations.”
Găină, Marcel-Alexandru et al. “Perspective on the Double Edges of Virtual Reality in Medicine - both Addiction & Treatment.” BRAIN. Broad Research in Artificial Intelligence and Neu-roscience, vol. 12, no. 2, 2021, pp. 364-73.
Gani, Aaron. “Can VR Work as a Digital Therapeutic?” 2022, https://www.fastcom-pany.com/90793064/can-vr-act-as-a-digital-therapeutic. Accessed September 27 2022.
Graham, Jamie. “A Leap Into The Unknown: How ‘Design Fiction’ Is Shaping Our Future.” 2020,https://journeytozerostories.neste.com/sustainability/leap-unknown-how-design-fic-tion-shaping-our-future. Accessed October 7 2022.
Jackson, Myron Moses. “From Compulsive to Persuasive Agencies: Whitehead’s Case for Enter-tainment.” Essays in the Philosophy of Humanism, vol. 25, no. 2, 2017, pp. 221-46.
Marchese, David. “Can We Have a Meaningful Life in a Virtual World?” https://www.ny-times.com/interactive/2021/12/13/magazine/david-j-chalmers-interview.html. Accessed October 7 2022.
McCracken, Harry. “The Metaverse Is….” Fast Company, October 2022, pp. 80-87. “New Study Shows Value of Virtual Reality for Pain Management.” 2019, https://www.cedars-sinai.org/newsroom/new-study-shows-value-of-virtual-reality-for-pain-management/. Ac-cessed October 7 2022.
Quinn, Heather Snyder. “What Is Design Fiction And How Can It Shape A Sustainable (Real) Future?” https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2021/11/what-is-design-fiction-and-how-can-it-shape-the-real-future/. Accessed October 7 2022.
Ramos, Santiago. “A Supplement, Not a Substitute.” https://www.commonwealmaga-zine.org/supplement-not-substitute. Accessed October 7 2022.
Sample, Ian. “‘Virtual Reality is Genuine Reality’ So Embrace It, Says Philosopher.” https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2022/jan/17/virtual-reality-is-genuine-reality-so-embrace-it-says-us-philosopher. Accessed October 7 2022.
Søraker, Johnny Hartz. “Virtual Worlds and Their Challenge to Philosophy: Understanding the “Intravirtual” and the “Extravirtual”.” Metaphilosophy, vol. 43, no. 4, 2012, pp. 499-512.
Tassi, Paul. “Does Mark Zuckerberg Not Understand How Bad His Metaverse Looks?”https://www.forbes.com/sites/paultassi/2022/08/17/does-mark-zuckerberg-not-understand-how-bad-his-metaverse-looks/?sh=2f55564b37d4. Accessed October 7 2022.
“The Earth Charter.” https://earthcharter.org/read-the-earth-charter/. Accessed October 7 2022.
“The Metaverse and How We’ll Build It Together.” 2021, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Uvufun6xer8. Accessed October 1 2022. “What is Virtual Reality.” https://www.vrs.org.uk/virtual-reality/what-is-virtual-reality.html.